In the days just before the closely contested Ashes, Andy Murray wins the Wimbledon. Australia’s tactical blunders during the lead-up seem painfully obvious on either camp. It becomes mysterious to note how certain writers, or former cricketers, magically understood and responded to the sacking of Mickey Arthur, and the installment of Darren Lehmann, as an ingenious move towards Australia being tilted as favorites.
The English press doesn’t need an excuse to run tactical, negative campaigns – they take every opportunity to remind the public, and the Australians, about their self-inflicted chaos, unrelenting in their desire to also publish demi-god narratives around Cook and Murray, often providing the much needed humor bordering sledgehammer stupidity.
I suspect that the Australians saw past the outright cynicism being depicted. Handing Agar his debut was a reflection of their experimental attitude, coupled with a huge dose of self-confidence. Or his services for a solitary Pietersen wicket. And England’s choice of Steven Finn over Tim Bresnan, whose statistics at Trentbridge and ability to reverse swing would’ve made him an automatic choice hands down, sent a puzzling message.
The lack in parity to this series’ build-up, given the absence of pyrotechnics involving verbatim mouthfuls that we have so been used to, was nullified by sessions two and three of Day 1. Australia’s bowling wasn’t as portentous as a score of 215 would indicate, rather an obvious display of England becoming victims of their self-aggrandizing stroke decision making had the writing on the wall. And what could pose as a better example than the loose stroke Cook played to unscrew the wheels of his parked bus that fetched him in excess of 700 runs the last times the two teams met.
That doesn’t deny the due credit Peter Siddle deserves for his five-for. A game of test cricket is about remaining patient, waiting to exploit the right opportunity and the right time. And that is precisely what Siddle did, inducing the Englishmen in to playing strokes they otherwise wouldn’t have.
It isn’t often that you get a chance to see a frustrated Trott at the crease, his suicidal whiff of the wand outside off-stump ending what otherwise looked a promising, foundation-laying 48. Australia’s plan of bowling straight at Trott reaped few results, with the number 3 batsman happy to work anything around middle-off-outside-off down the leg side.
Only a shot as un-Trottesque as that could’ve sent him back to the pavilion. Chris Rogers would’ve been in his nappies the last time Trott would’ve even thought of playing such a shot. Siddle’s figures would have been a mere footnote had Pietersen and Trott not succumbed to loose shots.
A brief period of counter-attacking batsmanship featuring Broad and Bairstow was otherwise what threw hopes of England posing a decently sizeable total. A momentary lapse in concentration sent Broad back home, followed by a classical Bairstow dismissal – playing all around a straight delivery. England crashed down like a pack of cards placed in front of a table fan.
And so did Australia’s top order. You could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the same sample set of batsmen swapped shirts after seven minutes, and continued their tryst with flaying at deliveries outside off stump. And so did Clarke to the delivery that almost got Finn his hat-trick.
The margins of success between a good and a bad shot played to a ball outside off stump are so inconsiderable that video analyses are unlikely to render anything qualitative. On another day, the shots played by Watson and Cowan could have ended up in the cover boundary. But they played them early, all right. If a naked eye couldn’t spot it, observing how late Chris Rogers played the ball at the other end stood a relative frame of reference. Experience counts.
So does luck. Or brilliance, however you see it. With the initial limelight on Finn and his pace, it took a peach of a ball from Anderson to get rid of Michael Clarke, almost as though the occasion was saved for England’s spearhead bowler to get rid of Australia’s most dangerous batsman. Any hope that Australia harbored on their captain to deliver was smoke-screened by a late out-swinger that kissed the top-of-off. Clarke would’ve fallen victim to that, whether he’d been on 0, or 150.
It looks a platform that would require the patience of an archetypal anchorman to crawl through to a hundred. Smith’s unsure methods, indicated by his ‘little boy waiting in a dentist’s room’ nervousness towards the not-so-short deliveries, laid the onus on veteran Rogers, playing his second test, to sail the Australian towards safer shores.
But the old statesman didn’t last long, falling leg-before to a straight delivery from Anderson and knocking of a tally from the review count as he walked back. With Graeme Swann still awaiting a swing of his arms, there seemed every possibility of another wicket falling given the Englishman’s healthy track record of a guaranteed scalp within his first few overs. And that the badly out-of-form Phil Hughes walked in at six.
It makes you wonder the sort of message that is being sent across when a batsman of the caliber of Smith is sent ahead of Hughes. Not to doubt the former’s ability, he is a gritty individual but isn’t considered in the same league of batsmen as Phil Hughes is, although recent statistics won’t point necessarily so.
But to his credit, Smith started looking more assured with every ball faced. He started playing with soft hands, often removing his bottom hand off the grip to place the ball delicately between fielders for quick singles. His determination wins over his not so quaint technique.
And with a day lasting as long as a Djokovic preamble to a serve, a pleasantly surprising feature of an English summer, England hold the edge on a day that would’ve had them made read unpleasant verdicts of themselves during the innings break. What a comeback to spark the Ashes!